American exceptionalism doesn’t give you the right to only speak English while traveling

Traveling is one of those luxuries in life that practically everyone dreams about—jet-setting across the globe, tasting delicious food and wine in foreign countries and making new friends who will either warmly embrace American exceptionalism or run us out of town with pitchforks and torches.

So imagine my reaction when my sister called to say that she booked us a trip to Tenerife. I gently put down the phone and threw my arms wildly in the air while screaming obscenities like “Tenerife, F@#$ yeah!!! WOOOOO!” Then I shook up a bottle of champagne and violently sprayed it as if I had just won an Olympic gold medal in men’s curling, which, for anyone who has ever watched curling (my sympathies), was probably a bit excessive. Then reality set in. “Uh…where’s Tenerife?”

Located to the southwest of mainland Spain, Tenerife is the largest and most populous island of the seven Canary Islands. According to Wikipedia, Tenerife is 785 square miles large (about the size of Jacksonville, Florida) and is home to about 900,000 inhabitants. The island also welcomes five million tourists each year.

After landing at the Tenerife South Airport, my sister and I approached the nearest taxi driver we saw. This was the first time I have ever been to a Spanish-speaking country, so I was eager to practice my three years of high school Spanish. “Hola señor, hablas Español?” I asked. “Sí,” he replied…

There was a long pause as he waited for me to say something else. I suddenly realized that I used up most of my vocabulary and cursed myself for not asking him if he spoke English instead. “Voy aquí,” I said in broken Spanish while pointing to an address of our hotel. The driver nodded, which I interpreted to mean he either understood me or that I was about to get robbed and stabbed by his friends. Though I wasn’t keen on the latter, I really really wanted to know if my Spanish worked.

3 Essential Tips to Avoid Getting Stabbed While Traveling

“O.M.G. How fun was that!?” I asked my sister on the way to our hotel, hoping for some affirmation. “You should practice some Spanish too while you’re here,” knowing she studied it for two years. She stared blankly at me—the same look my mom gives me when I say something stupid like “Are we Chinese or Vietnamese?”—and shook her head. But I was persistent. “It’s like when I got to London, I spoke British to the people here.” I demonstrated. “Top of the mornin’ gov’na. Some fish n’ chips please. Bollucks. Cheers mate.” Nailed it.

This reluctance of speaking another language isn’t just limited to my sister however. A 2013 Gallup Poll found that only one in three Americans know a second language. 72% of Americans say it is essential that immigrants living in the U.S. learn English. At the same time, only 20% believe that Americans should learn a second language. When you dig deeper, it turns out Whites attach less importance to learning a second language (other than English) than minorities. I did some further research on this topic, by which I mean that I googled “why don’t Americans know more languages.” Here are some of the results.

  • “learning a foreign language is really hard”
  • “schools at every level are balancing their budgets…and eliminating foreign language requirements”
  • “Americans don’t tend to travel much outside of their own backyard”

These results are both unfortunate and concerning. As the world becomes smaller and travel simpler, American tourists are reaching more parts of the globe. We should set a higher standard for ourselves. People who think that culture is only experienced through the lens of food, performances, or trips to the museum have it very wrong. While these are all worthwhile experiences, they represent an incomplete portrait of people and culture. It’s through language that these activities are most freely and naturally expressed. That’s the amazing thing about travel—it takes us beyond learning language from a textbook and immerses us in an environment where language is the center of culture.

So even though my Spanish vocabulary was limited, it was enough to get my sister and me to our hotel without getting ripped off. I paid our driver (my sister told me that Europeans don’t leave tips, a cultural nuance which I was happy to oblige), thanked him for the ride and danced through the hotel lobby singing “Soy aquí. Soy aquí!” (I am here, I am here). It was a magical, albeit fleeting, moment. “Hi, I’m James.” I told the receptionist. “Do you speak English?”

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